Welcome to the “big trip” of 2018.
If you’ve been keeping up with the blog, you’ll have known about this trip for a while now. In a few days, I’ll be going to Russia to attend the 2018 FIFA World Cup. I’ll be hanging out in Moscow and St. Petersburg for a few weeks and enjoying the football festivities, before embarking on an audacious train journey all the way to Beijing on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Call it what you want – the pinnacle of world football, the world’s most-watched sporting event, the Greatest Show on Earth.
It’s not uncommon for football fans around the world to mark out entire lifetimes in terms of FIFA World Cups. For me, the 2018 edition in Russia is the fifth World Cup that I’ll be watching and the second one that I’ll be attending in-person, and I could not be more excited. I’ve been pinching myself these past couple of days watching the games on TV, knowing that I’ll be in the midst of the action in just a few days’ time.
Of course, the introduction of the Fan ID for the duration of the World Cup – enabling visa-free travel throughout the Russian Federation – also meant that it was a great opportunity to see as much of Russia as possible. I therefore scheduled our stays in Moscow and St. Petersburg around the match tickets that I had purchased (one in the group stage and two in the knockout rounds).
We certainly hear about Russia quite a lot here in the Western world, and while the news is rarely positive, it’s also no doubt only one side of the story. I’m keen to see things with my own eyes and develop a better sense of what life is like in Russia's two largest metropolises.
In total, we have a week in Moscow and five days in St. Petersburg, which should give use ample time to explore at our own pace. I look forward to spending each day visiting a few attractions and museums, watching the games at the FIFA Fan Fests (designated fan zones with giant screens), and relaxing in cafes, restaurants, and – if I’m feeling adventurous – banyas (Russian bathhouses)!
As for the Trans-Siberian Railway, well, what can I say? The idea came to me when I was thinking about ways to get from Moscow to Beijing, and although I was hesitant at first, I eventually knew there was no choice but to go through with the trip.
After all, Russia has a lot more to offer than just Moscow and St. Petersburg, and it’ll be intriguing to watch the world go by as Europe gradually transforms into Asia. Moreover, it’s actually quite a relatively inexpensive way to travel, once you take into account the fact that you get six nights' accommodation out of the entire journey.
After arriving at the train station in Beijing (it still feels surreal writing those words!), I’ll be there for an extended period to spend some quality time with my family. I might do a few side-trips around the region as well, depending on how worn-out we feel after a 2,215 km journey by rail across the length of the Old World.
Jessica is travelling around Europe at the moment and will be joining me in Russia, so I just needed to book a one-way trip for myself from Toronto. Looking at Aeroplan, my options were pretty thin given the significant number of football-mad tourists flying into Moscow around this time.
I was delighted to find a single business class seat on Brussels Airlines to Brussels, connecting via Ljubljana to Moscow on Adria Airways, Slovenia's national airline. I had flown Brussels Airlines business class last year and was satisfied with the experience, so had no hesitation booking it again this time around. Rather annoyingly, Adria imposes fuel surcharges, so I paid about $250 in addition to the 55,000 Aeroplan miles.
That was back in December. A few months later, I’m checking my itinerary and notice that the Adria flight from Ljubljana to Moscow Sheremetyevo had shifted earlier a few hours in the schedule, meaning that I was now arriving in Ljubljana hours after I’m supposed to depart!
I hurriedly called up Aeroplan, and with pretty much every other award seat exhausted (I couldn’t accept flying into another Moscow airport since I had to pick up Jessica at Sheremetyevo on the same night), the Aeroplan agent had no choice but to book a revenue flight in business class, so that I could arrive in Ljubljana earlier by way of Frankfurt.
I had the choice between Air Canada and Lufthansa for which airline to fly, and since I’ve already reviewed Air Canada recently, I decided to go with Lufthansa business class. While you should avoid redeeming your miles on Lufthansa because of their hefty fuel surcharges, it's a decent option if you have a schedule change gives you the option of changing your itinerary for free.
Meanwhile, on my way back from Beijing, I'm continuing the First Class adventures from my last trip back home by flying Asiana Airlines First Class. We'll be enjoying a long layover in Seoul before boarding the front cabin of the Airbus A380 and flying back to Toronto via connections in Los Angeles and Montreal, all for 105,000 Aeroplan miles per person. I'm eagerly looking forward to another round of champagne and caviar over the Pacific Ocean (and you bet Jessica is as well, having missed out last time around!)
In summary, my flights look as follows, all in business class unless otherwise stated:
- Toronto to Frankfurt on Lufthansa, departing 6:20pm and arriving 8am the next day
- Frankfurt to Ljubljana on Adria Airways, departing 9:20am and arriving 10:30am
- Ljubljana to Moscow Sheremetyevo on Adria Airways, departing 11:15am and arriving 3:05pm
- Beijing to Seoul Gimpo on Air China, departing 6:45pm and arriving 9:50pm
- Seoul Incheon to Los Angeles on Asiana Airlines, departing 8:40pm and arriving 4pm, First Class
- Los Angeles to Montreal on Air Canada, departing 10:50pm and arriving 7:08am the next day
- Montreal to Toronto on Air Canada, departing 9am and arriving 10:22am, economy class
Check out this post for some in-depth guidance on the booking process for Trans-Siberian trains. In a nutshell:
- You need to book separate tickets for each leg of the journey if you intend to stop off in certain cities
- Intra-Russia segments can be booked online, while international legs must be booked in person at the train station
- You can book First Class (private two-person suites), second class (four-person compartments with doors), or third class (six-person open air compartments)
- Booking from the official Russian Railways website, rzd.ru, or a Russian travel website like tutu.ru, is significantly cheaper than going through an agency
I scheduled my stops along the Trans-Siberian route based on the remaining World Cup matches. After all, a large motivation of the trip was to attend the World Cup, and watching the final with a spotty 3G signal from a train zooming through the Siberian taiga would be a bit of an anticlimax.
I also chose to stop off in only three Russian cities east of Moscow that had SPG/Marriott hotels – Nizhny Novgorod, Novosibirsk, and Irkutsk – so that I could book my hotel stays on points.
As of the time of writing, the Irkutsk–Ulaanbataar–Beijing segments still haven’t been booked yet. I’m working with a friend of mine in Russia to get the first one ticketed at the train station, while the second part can only be booked at the train station in Ulaanbataar by many accounts. One thing’s for sure – the latter part of this journey promises to be an adventure and a half!
If everything goes as expected, the trains will look as follows. We're doing a mix of First Class, second class, and third class just to capture the entire spectrum, but I do have to point out that the First Class segment alone bumped up the overall price by about $300 per person (on the other hand, Nizhny Novgorod to Novosibirsk is a two-day journey, so it's probably well worth the money).
- Moscow to St. Petersburg, departing 10:50pm and arriving 6:47am the next day, second class (free train included with World Cup match ticket)
- St. Petersburg to Moscow, departing 11am and arriving 2:46pm, express train with seats
- Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod, departing 7:15am and arriving 11:02am, express train with seats
- Nizhny Novgorod to Novosibirsk, departing 5:50am and arriving 1:21am two days later, First Class
- Novosibirsk to Irkutsk, departing 5:38am and arriving 1:30pm the next day, third class
- Irkutsk to Ulaanbataar, departing 8:08am and arriving 6:50am the next day, second class
- Ulaanbataar to Beijing, departing 7:30am and arriving 2:35pm the next day, second class
I needed to book quite a handful of hotels for this trip:
- 8 nights in Moscow
- 4 nights in St. Petersburg
- 1 more night in Moscow before embarking on the train journey
- 1 night in Nizhny Novgorod
- 3 nights in Novosibirsk
- 3 nights in Irkutsk
- 2 nights in Ulaanbataar
Since Jessica was arriving late the first night, I decided to book an airport hotel by Moscow Sheremetyevo. I was shocked to find most of the airport hotels fully booked for that day, but relieved when I saw the Holiday Inn Express SVO available for either 20,000 IHG Rewards points or 10,000 points + US$70 with Cash & Points. Since I had just over 10,000 points sitting in my IHG account, I quickly nabbed that night at the Cash & Points rate, and I was pretty delighted with that, since the paid rate was outrageous on account of the World Cup being in town (it was something like $500 plus tax).
Booking the remaining 7 nights in Moscow was a similar story. You’d think this was a prime time to use a 7-night certificate from Marriott Travel Packages, except for the fact that none of the eight Marriott properties in the Russian capital had rooms available for points bookings over that 7-night period.
I had to first book a 5-night stay at the Marriott Moscow Tverskaya on points, since it was the best I could do. Then, I had to wait for the remaining two nights to open up, which they thankfully did a few weeks later. I was able to call Marriott Reservations to book those extra nights, combine my two bookings, and deploy the 7-night certificate. All told, I ended up redeeming 300,000 Marriott Rewards points for the Travel Package, and I got 120,000 airline miles out of it as well.
While the Marriott Tverskaya isn’t the best hotel in town quality-wise or location-wise, I’m just content to have been able to book a place to stay using points. Every hotel in town has astronomical cash rates during this period – even the Tverskaya was going for about $800 a night, making my 7-night certificate a very satisfying redemption indeed.
With my options for free hotel stays looking equally sparse in St. Petersburg, I decided to burn some Airbnb credits instead. I booked a small studio apartment on Teatralnaya Street, close to some of the city’s main attractions. In contrast to hotel prices, Airbnbs were surprisingly affordable, and after applying about $75 in referral credits, this one came to $213 for the four-night stay.
After that, there was one more night in Moscow before we would begin the long journey east. It was only this week, after tracking hotel availability for many months, that I was finally able to secure a room at the Hotel National, a Luxury Collection Hotel – one of the city’s premier properties located steps away from Red Square. It was a bit of a splurge at 16,000 Starpoints for the night, but I figured that no visit to Moscow would be complete without a touch of Russian decadence.
Over to Siberia. This part of the world doesn’t see many tourists, and so all the SPG/Marriott hotels were quite affordable with points.
- 1 night at the Sheraton Nizhny Novgorod for 4,000 Starpoints
- 3 nights at the Marriott Novosibirsk for 30,000 Marriott Rewards points
- 3 nights at the Courtyard by Marriott Irkutsk for 30,000 Marriott Rewards points
That leaves Ulaanbataar, for which I haven’t booked anything yet. The only “nice” hotel in town seems to be the Shangri-La, which is quite expensive and isn’t exactly easy to book on points.
If anyone has spare Shangri-La Golden Circle points lying around, feel free to reach out to me – I’d be more than happy to enter into a fair trade 😊 Otherwise, I’ll probably end up booking a cheap local hotel for our two nights there.
The overall trip looks as follows (flights are denoted in red, while trains are denoted in blue), and I have to say, this map looks pretty damn satisfying.
My total out-of-pocket costs for this trip came to the below, per person:
- Aeroplan taxes and fees, YYZ–FRA–LJU–SVO: $278 (one person only)
- Aeroplan taxes and fees, PEK–GMP;ICN–LAX–YUL–YYZ: $260
- 1 night at the Holiday Inn Express SVO (IHG Cash & Points): $45
- St. Petersburg Airbnb: $108
- Train tickets, St. Petersburg–Beijing: $850
- Total: $1541
Toronto, I'll see you in a few months! I can't wait to finally experience the results of the work I've put into planning this trip – Red Square, the Hermitage, World Cup fever, the Trans-Siberian Railway, Lake Baikal, Mongolia, some quality time with the family, and rounding it all off with Asiana First Class!
It promises to be an action-packed summer, and I'll have lots of stories to tell along the way. Since the blog posts from this trip will probably extend well into the rest of the year, make sure to follow me on Instagram to get day-by-day updates from my journey.
And as always, thank you all for your support – it's what makes trips like this possible!